Our main focus is on a trio of shantytown kids who age from boys to men: Hamid, the bicycle-chain swinging leader of the band, his younger brother Tarek, nicknamed "Yachine" after a famous Soviet soccer goalie, and Tarek's weakling buddy Nabil. In ancient kid-gang fashion they and the rest of their team are chased back to their own neighborhood by the other team, the skins to their shirts, after a game falls apart. From the beginning Nabil and Tarek are accused of being gay for each other -- in a horrific scene a drunken Hamid actually rapes Nabil as Tarek and their other pals watch stupefied -- and a certain panic about masculinity amid a greater physical intimacy than men share in the west informs the decisions they make as young men. They work as mechanics for a boorish garage owner while Hamid, who'd become a drug dealer, stews in stir for throwing a rock through a cop's car window on a dare. Hamid returns from prison apparently reformed, but now he's too neat looking and there's something sinister about his new seeming serenity. It soon becomes apparent that he's been "radicalized," to use the current buzzword, but to Ayouch it looks more like plain old brainwashing by a cult.
The evolution (or devolution?) of Hamid (Abdelilah Rachid)
Still, while Hamid has grown a little aloof from his family -- including an alcoholic dad, a trashy mom and another brother who's a little crazy about his radio -- he and his new buddies come in handy when Tarek and Nabil need to cover up Tarek's killing of their boss for having out-of-nowhere started fondling Nabil. Tarek feels obliged to these devout dudes, who are also kind of cool for knowing karate, but he also finds their disciplined activity filling a void in his life. His promises to become a life of action rather than mere being, action becoming more important than life, even if he does still pine a little for Ghislaine, the pretty girl from the embroidery school. Suddenly he seems even more radicalized than Hamid, and Hamid notices this to his dismay.
What elevates Horses of God above a simple expose on the making of terrorists is Hamid's wavering development. It's a surprising twist if you were expecting Tarek, the good brother and our point-of-view character, to observe and/or oppose Hamid's radicalization. As Hamid, Abdelilah Rachid undergoes multiple transformations, from thug to true believer to something more ambivalent. It's not so much that he comes to doubt jihad as that he can't stand to see Tarek traveling this path. It's as if some older-brother protectiveness overrides his radicalization. For all we know he could die readily himself, but eventually he can't bear even to think about Tarek martyring himself. At the brink of doom he tries to dissuade Tarek from carrying out a bombing of a niteclub, only to have Tarek at long last step out of older brother's shadow by shoving him to the ground. The dynamics of their whole sad family make Horses something more than a political film. Because the characters are convincingly human, the stakes seem more real for the audience, especially as we see harmless-seeming people denounced for sin and apostasy and targeted for death for no good strategic reason.
The film closes on a despairingly Bruegelian note as a consummating explosion is seen only from a tremendous distance -- from one of the soccer fields where Hamid and Tarek played as boys, where the next generation of shantytown boys watches with short-lived fascination, little suspecting what the filmmakers suspect is their own dark destiny. The subject matter alone makes Horses of God necessary viewing in our time, but fortunately there's more than necessity to justify seeing it.